Nuts & Bolts
Do As the Dodos Do Do Do …
September 2009

by Bill Pierce

As DSLRs produce better and better results with higher and higher ISOs, flash, high-speed lenses and tripods are going the way of the dodo. Too bad .…


For the news shooter who is going to see his originals lose tonal range, whether in a printed publication or on a variety of computer monitors all displaying the same picture in different ways, it's time to go back in time to the days of the Speed Graphic and fill-in flash. OK, but with a difference – smaller camera, much weaker flash.

Shooting digital is a lot like shooting color slide film. Overexpose important highlights and they become the digital equivalent of the slide film's clear, cellophane-like film base. No detail; no way to recover it. Thus, you expose in a way to guarantee highlight detail. But proper exposure for the highlights can result in lost shadow detail. In a lot of those cases, you can maintain shadow detail with discreet fill-in flash from the camera's built-in flash or a bigger accessory unit. The point is to keep it minimal and as unnoticeable as possible.

In many cases this is easy with an automatic flash. You just set the flash exposure control to minus 1-1/2 or minus 2 stops. It adds a slight lift to the shadows in the important foreground subject but does little to change the appearance of the available light.

Unfortunately, this is a less than perfect world. Some cameras in auto exposure modes will automatically turn down the flash in bright daylight, saying, "He really doesn't need or want a full flash out here." With both you and the camera turning down the flash, there can be problems. Run some tests. Find out what "minus setting" gives you the fill you like. Check out the camera in sunlight, bright room light and absolutely awful light. With the high ISOs of today's DSLRs, you are going to be able to shoot in some dim, ugly, heavily shadowed light. But your flash may not be able to produce a weak enough light to only fill in the shadows. Best to know in advance.

With digital, testing the very bright and the very dark is quick. And you now have a tool that is especially useful to photographers whose pictures are going to be reproduced.


Face it, in this day of high "film" speeds you can cover almost any assignment with a couple of relatively slow zoom lenses. Who wants to carry the extra weight of high-speed, fixed-focal length lenses? Who wants to pay the high price tag on some of those babies?

Well, the truth is, no one. But I don't know any other quick, straightforward way to minimize distracting backgrounds than to use a large aperture. More importantly, with the high ISOs providing usable image quality on some of the newer DSLRs, I can wander around New York City at night and street shoot – no tripod, no flash. For those of you who think, "Big City, Bright Lights, No Big Deal," I can also shoot in the bucolic half of my bicoastal life. I just don't think pictures of twilight dog walks are as much fun as pictures of Big City, Bad City, Fairly Dark City.

Of course, there is a downside to pushing back the boundaries of what is available light. You may be able to shoot, but in dark, low-contrast situations your camera may have problems autofocusing. Of course, this happens less with high-speed lenses, but it can happen. In some cases the camera or a flash unit can project a focusing pattern to solve this problem. (Make sure you can do it without firing the flash.) If your camera has the option of interchangeable viewing/focusing screens, there may be one that is more suitable for manually focusing high-aperture lenses. Yes, MANUALLY focusing your lenses. I know this is unthinkable recidivism even among the old codgers who used to do it for a living, but it has its advantages.

Focus manually as well as you can. Take a shot. Move the focus a little forward on the manual scale; shoot another frame. Move the focus back; shoot another frame. Somewhere in that range there should be a sharp shot. By now, the subject or the moment has probably disappeared. But, if not, do the whole procedure again. If you feel ashamed, remember, you bracket your exposures and don't feel ashamed. It's OK to bracket your focus.


With all this talk of high ISOs and high-speed lenses, why would one ever need a tripod? Because we are not going to use it with our big DSLRs. We are going to use it with little cameras like the Canon G-series or the mini 4/3 cameras that are appearing on the market.

That's ridiculous. Why would you use a little camera like that instead of a large, manly camera? Well, it doesn't make as much noise as a large, manly camera. As a matter of fact, if you go into the menu and knock out the simulated shutter sound, assorted beeps and theme music, it comes close to making no sound.  

That's right, it's a low-noise camera for covering film and television shoots, stage productions, courtrooms and any other situations where the sound of a camera going off is definitely not wanted. If you do a lot of this, you are going to want to use your big camera and a Jacobson Blimp.

But, for that one-time assignment, try putting the little, quiet camera on a small tripod and using it at the lowest ISO that will let you get away with a slow shutter speed that you couldn't consistently hand hold. The trick is the tripod.

Michael Reichmann, on his excellent Web site, The Luminous Landscape, has an article describing the results when he shot with a well-supported Canon G10 at it lowest ISO and with a $40,000 Hasselblad and Phase One 39 Megapixel back, making 13"x19" prints from each. Within those limitations, the viewers had difficulty distinguishing between cameras and ended up with close to a 50/50 split on which was best.

And, if you think you can't do photojournalism with a tripod, ask the old dudes who shot Kodachrome.

As to this month's picture that has nothing to do with the column … a Revolutionary War reenactment.

© Bill Pierce
Contributing Writer

Bill Pierce's pictures have appeared in Time, Life, People, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New York Times and many other publications and books here and abroad. He is a winner of the Leica Medal of Excellence, the World Press Budapest Award and the Overseas Press Olivier Rebbot Award for best photoreporting from abroad. His pictures are in the collections of major universities, museums and private collectors. More of his pictures can be seen at

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